Sunday 11 September 2016

Swallowing hard

'Swallowing hard' described pretty well what I had to do when the price of two return flights to St Mary's for Saturday, 10th September, came up on the Isles of Scilly Travel website as I perused it on Thursday evening. But if I wanted to see the American Cliff Swallow which had been there since Monday, there was nothing for it but to click 'buy now'.
Cliff Swallow - difficult to get the right exposure with the bird skimming just above and below the vegetated horizon against a grey sky - this as close as it came (I should have pushed the over-exposure to more than 1 and two-thirds - but there wasn't time to muck about!)
One ticket would have been cheaper of course, but my youngest son has been dying to go on his first aeroplane flight for years, and, while babysitters had generously made themselves available so I could go alone, I figured 'what the hell, we're both worth it'. When I told him the price of his air fare, the cheeky young pup asked if he could have the cash instead, but when I said 'no', and offered to lend him an old Tamron 70-300mm lens and an even older Canon digital SLR so he could take photos like Dad, his mind was made up.
This shot shows the reddish rump, neck collar and a white forehead patch...
The option of staying with friends in Cornwall on Friday night was there, but Rowan was insistent that we travel through the night as he thought that would be more exciting. I am not sure he felt the same when the alarm went off at daft o'clock, but after a bit of toast and juice, he came to and I knew he would be fine when I heard him say 'awesome!' as we headed out into the night. I remember the excitement of getting up early to go out with my own father so I could relate to that.
...and this one the squarer tail and chunkier build relative to our own Swallows
Night closures on the A30 caused a minor diversion but we made good time, arriving at the airport with sufficient leeway to have second breakfast before boarding. Rowan's face was a picture as we taxied down the runway and took off into a grey Cornish morning. He's got a pretty good vocabulary for a 9 year old, telling me that going on a plane was 'overwhelming' and the take-off 'climactic'. Perhaps I'll get him to do a guest blog one day.
Very difficult for the auto-focus to lock on when it was in front of vegetation
Having spent a bit too much time sitting down all morning, we opted for the 10 minute walk from St Mary's airport to Porth Hellick rather than a taxi. Fellow passengers who had overtaken us on the road hadn't seen any sign of the Swallow by the time we arrived, nor did any of us for the following two hours. At around this time, Rowan said to me 'So Dad, if we don't see this bird, will it have been a complete waste of money?' I thought about it, and, reflecting on his reaction to the early start and the flight over, was pleased to be able to answer honestly, 'no'.
When in front of the trees it had a brownish cast by comparison to the bluer Barn Swallows it was with
I was strangely confident by my pessimistic standards about the Cliff Swallow turning up though, and a few minutes later a muffled bellow from an unseen voice on the beach suggested that it might have done just that. After what digiscoping supremo Paul Hackett described as a 'Scilly sprint' - more of a wheezy hobble, if we're honest with ourselves - we were soon watching this great rarity, the fifth for Scilly, buzzing the fields between Porth Hellick pool and downs. Another Paul (Welling), co-driver on my Whitsun trip to North Uist, was also there to enjoy the scene.
Reminiscent in terms of its chunkiness to the Chesterfield Crag Martin from last year
So how did Rowan get on with his first long-distance twitch? Surprisingly well, I would say. Despite the early start, he never got tired, the camera kept him amused throughout the long wait for the Cliff Swallow to show, and I think being the only boy amongst the grown-ups made him feel pretty cool too. It certainly helped that my fellow birders made a fuss of him and made sure he got onto the bird. They even inadvertently extended his rich vocabulary by letting slip a few Anglo-Saxon words which he spent the trip home asking me the meaning of. Thanks for that chaps!
Our journey to St Mary's in one of these was a bit easier than the Atlantic crossing made by the Cliff Swallow
So how do I feel about my first long-distance twitch with offspring in tow? Pretty good actually. First, pre-twitch anxiety was reduced as the parental responsibility gave me something more important to worry about than whether the Cliff Swallow would be there. Second, to share a few new experiences (his first flight, my first Cliff Swallow) was definitely special. And third, he was over-joyed to be back on the magical islands where we spent many family holidays when he was younger. That alone was worth the ticket price. The only downside being that he'll be jacking in school to take up a position as a chimney sweep shortly to help pay off the overdraft.
Navigator, co-pilot and fellow lensman, Rowan. 'Can we go on a jumbo jet next?'

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